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Primal Sound (1919) 

Rainer Maria Rilke 

It must have been when I was a boy at school that the 
phonograph was invented. At any rate it was at that 
time a chief object of public wonder; this was proba¬ 
bly the reason why our science master, a man given to 
busying himself with all kinds of handiwork, encour¬ 
aged us to try our skill in making one of these instru¬ 
ments from the material that lay nearest to hand. Noth¬ 
ing more was needed than a piece of pliable cardboard 
bent to the shape of a funnel, on the narrower orifice 
of which was stuck a piece of impermeable paper of the 
kind used to bottle fruit. This provided a vibrating mem¬ 
brane, in the middle of which we stuck a bristle from a 
coarse clothes brush at right angles to its surface. With 
these few things one part of the mysterious machine was 
made, receiver and reproducer were complete. It now 
only remained to construct the receiving cylinder, which 
could be moved close to the needle marking the sounds 
by means of a small rotating handle. I do not remem¬ 
ber what we made it of; there was some kind of cylinder 
which we covered with a thin coating of candle-wax to 
the best of our ability. Our impatience, brought to a pitch 



by the excitement of sticking and fitting the parts, as we 
jostled one another over it, was such that the wax had 
scarcely cooled and hardened before we put our work to 
the test. 

How now this was done can easily be imagined. When 
someone spoke or sang into the funnel, the needle in 
the parchment transferred the sound-waves to the re¬ 
ceptive surface of the roll slowly turning beneath it, and 
then, when the moving needle was made to retrace its 
path (which had been fixed in the meantime with a coat 
of varnish), the sound which had been ours came back 
to us tremblingly, haltingly from the paper funnel, un¬ 
certain, infinitely soft and hesitating and fading out al¬ 
together in places. Each time the effect was complete. 
Our class was not exactly one of the quietest, and there 
can have been few moments in its history when it had 
been able as a body to achieve such a degree of silence. 
The phenomenon, on every reception of it, remained as¬ 
tonishing, indeed positively staggering. We were con¬ 
fronting, as it were, a new and infinitely delicate point in 
the texture of reality, from which something far greater 
than ourselves, yet indescribably immature, seemed to 
be appealing to us as if seeking help. At the time and 
all through the intervening years I believed that that in¬ 
dependent sound, taken from us and preserved outside 
of us, would be unforgettable. That it turned out other¬ 
wise is the cause of my writing the present account. As 
will be seen, what impressed itself on my memory most 
deeply was not the sound from the funnel but the mark¬ 
ings traced on the cylinder; these made a most definite 

I first became aware of this some fourteen of fifteen 


years after my school-days were past. It was during 
my first stay in Paris. At that time I was attending the 
anatomy lectures in the Ecole des Beaux- Arts with con¬ 
siderable enthusiasm. It was not so much the manifold 
interlacing of the muscles and sinews nor the complete 
inner agreement of the inner organs with another that 
appealed to me, but rather the bare skeleton, the restrained 
energy and elasticity of which I had already noticed when 
studying the drawings of Leonardo. However much I 
puzzled over the structure of the whole, it was more 
than I could deal with; my attention always reverted to 
the study of the skull, which seemed to me to consti¬ 
tute the utmost achievement, as it were, of which this 
chalky element was capable; it was as if it had been per¬ 
suaded to make just in this part a special effort to render 
a decisive service by providing a most solid protection 
for the most daring feature of all, for something which, 
though itself narrowly confined, had a field of activity 
which was boundless. The fascination which this par¬ 
ticular structure had for me reached such a pitch finally, 
that I procured a skull in order to spend many hours of 
the night with it; and, as always happens with me and 
things, it was not only the moments of deliberate atten¬ 
tion which made this ambiguous object really mine: I 
owe my familiarity with it, beyond doubt, in part to that 
passing glance, with which we involuntarily examine 
and perceive our daily environment, when there exists 
any relationship at all between it and us. It was a pass¬ 
ing glance of this kind which I suddenly checked in its 
course, making it exact and attentive. By candlelight- 
which is often so peculiarly alive and challenging-the 
coronal suture had become strikingly visible, and I knew 


at once what it reminded me of: one of those unforgotten 
grooves, which had been scratched in a little wax cylin¬ 
der by the point of a bristle! 

And now I do not know: is it due to a rhythmic pecu¬ 
liarity of my imagination, that ever since, often after the 
lapse of years, I repeatedly feel the impulse to make that 
spontaneously perceived similarity the starting point for 
a whole series of unheard of experiments? I frankly con¬ 
fess that I have always treated this desire, whenever it 
made itself felt, with the most unrelenting mistrust-if 
proof be needed, let it be found in the fact that only now, 
after more than a decade and a half, have I resolved to 
make a cautious statement concerning it. Furthermore, 
there is nothing I can cite in favour of my idea beyond its 
obstinate recurrence, a recurrence which has taken me 
by surprise in all sorts of places, divorced from any con¬ 
nection with what I might be doing. 

What is it that repeatedly presents itself to my mind? 

It is this: 

The coronal suture of the skull (this would first have 
to be investigated) has-let us assume -a certain similar¬ 
ity to the closely wavy line which the needle of a phono¬ 
graph engraves on the receiving, rotating cylinder of the 
apparatus. What if one changed the needle and directed 
it on its return journey along a tracing which was not de¬ 
rived from the graphic translation of sound, but existed 
of itself naturally-well, to put it plainly, along the coro¬ 
nal suture, for example. What would happen? A sound 
would necessarily result, a series of sounds, music... 

Feelings-which? Incredulity, timidity, fear, awe-which 
of all feelings here possible prevents me from suggesting 
a name for the primal sound which would then make its 


appearance in the world... 

Leaving that side for the moment: what variety of 
lines then, occurring anywhere, could one not put un¬ 
der the needle and try out? Is there any contour that one 
could not, in a sense, complete in this way and then ex¬ 
perience it, as it makes itself felt, thus transformed, in 
another field of sense. 

At one period, when I began to interest myself in Ara¬ 
bic poems, which seem to owe their existence to the si¬ 
multaneous and equal contributions from all five senses, 
it struck me for the first time, that the modern European 
poet makes use of these five contributors singly and in 
very varying degree, only one of them-sight overladen 
with the world-seeming to dominate him constantly; how 
slight, by contrast, is the contribution he receives from 
inattentive hearing, not to speak of the indifference of 
other senses, which are active only on the periphery of 
consciousness and with many interruptions within the 
limited sphere of their practical activity. And yet the 
perfect poem can only materialize on condition that this 
world, acted upon by all five levers simultaneously, is 
seen, under a definite aspect, on the supernatural plane, 
which is, in fact, the plane of the poem. 

A lady, to whom this was mentioned in conversation, 
exclaimed that this wonderful and simultaneous capac¬ 
ity and achievement of all the senses was surely nothing 
but the presence of mind and grace of love- -incidentally 
she thereby bore her own witness to the sublime real¬ 
ity of the poem. But the lover is in such splendid dan¬ 
ger just because he must depend on the co-ordination 
of his senses, for he knows that they must meet in that 


unique and risky centre, in which, renouncing all exten¬ 
sion, they come together and have no permanence. 

As I write this, I have before me the diagram which 
I have always used as a ready help whenever ideas of 
this kind have demanded attention. If the world's whole 
field of experience, including those spheres which are 
beyond our knowledge, be represented in a complete 
circle, it will be immediately evident that, when the black 
sectors, denoting that which we are incapable of experi¬ 
encing, are measured gainst the lesser, light sections, cor¬ 
responding to that which is illuminated by the senses, 
the former are very much greater. 

Now the position of the lover is this, that he feels 
himself unexpectedly placed in the centre of the circle, 
that is to say, at the point where the known and the in¬ 
comprehensible, coming forcibly together at one single 
point, become complete and simply a possession, los¬ 
ing thereby, it is true, all individual character. This posi¬ 
tion would not serve for the poet, for individual variety 
must be constantly present for him, he is compelled to 
use the sense sectors to their full extent, as it must also 
be in his aim to extend each of them as far as possible, 
so that his lively delight, girt for the attempt, may be 
able to pass through the five gardens in one leap. As 
the lover's danger consists in the non-spatial character 
of his standpoint, so the poet's lies in his awareness of 
the abysses which divide the one order of sense experi¬ 
ence from the other: in truth they are sufficiently wide 
and engulfing to sweep away from before us the greater 
part of the world — who knows how many worlds? 

The question arises here, as to whether the extent of 
these sectors on the plane assumed by us can be en- 


larged to any vital degree by the work of research. The 
achievements of the microscope, of the telescope, and of 
so many devices which increase the range of the senses 
upwards and downwards, do they not lie in another sphere 
altogether, since most of the increase thus achieved can¬ 
not be interpreted by the senses, cannot be "experienced" 
in any real sense? It is, perhaps, not premature to sup¬ 
pose that the artist, who develops the five-fingered hand 
of his senses (if one may put it so) to ever more active 
and more spiritual capacity, contributes more decisively 
than anyone else to an extension of the several sense 
fields, only the achievement which gives proof of this 
does not permit of his entering his personal extension 
of territory in the general map before us, since it is only 
possible, in the last resort, by a miracle. 

But if we are looking for a way by which to estab¬ 
lish the connection so urgently needed between the dif¬ 
ferent provinces now so strangely separated from one 
another, what could be more promising than the experi¬ 
ment suggested earlier in this record? If the writer ends 
by recommending it once again, he may be given a cer¬ 
tain amount of credit for withstanding the temptation to 
give free reign to his fancy in imagining the results of the 
assumptions which he has suggested. 

Soglio. On the day of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin , 
1919 .